In Jean Chen Ho’s intimate and irreverent collection of linked stories, “Fiona and Jane,” a cast of multiethnic Asian Americans takes readers from sordid strip mall Korean bars to sumptuous New York clubs to Taipei’s bustling Shilin Night Market during the span of a 20-year friendship between its titular characters.
Ho’s debut book follows childhood best friends Fiona Lin and Jane Shen as they come of age, experience romantic encounters gone awry and explore their family histories. Told in alternating voices as the women grow up and later grow apart, Ho’s stories tackle themes of identity, shame, grief, sexuality and the intensity and complexity of female friendship.
“In my life, my long-standing friendships are so important to me,” Ho told NBC Asian America. “I still have friends from high school who are my closest girlfriends. I still have college newspaper friends, friends who are old co-workers and lots of different writing community friends, so I’m interested in how all those different iterations of friendship have shaped me as a person and writer.”
The collection’s first story, “The Night Market,” follows 18-year-old Jane’s visit to Taiwan to see her father, who ends up coming out to his daughter, which causes her to reflect on her own romantic feelings toward her female piano teacher. “Go Slow” highlights the dangers teenage Fiona and Jane face as they assert their independence, while “Doppelgangers” tracks a 29-year-old Fiona on her final weekend in New York, complete with microaggressions, a bad hookup and bumps of bathroom cocaine.
“This book isn’t autobiographical, but it’s based on observations of my world, my friends, experiences I’ve had or observed my friends having,” Ho said. “I wanted to write Asian American characters who were just doing dirtbag things and joking around with their friends, and the pleasure and joy of being a horny dirtbag, the joy and pleasure of being a really good friend, or at times having to make choices where you betray your friend.”
Like the characters in “Fiona and Jane,” Ho is the daughter of immigrants and grew up in diverse Southern California. Born in Taiwan, Ho and her family first moved to a small town outside of Kansas City, Missouri, where her father was a computer science professor, when she was 8 years old. When Ho started third grade, she didn’t speak English. By age 11, Ho was living in Cerritos, California, a Los Angeles suburb with an Asian majority of residents.
“Within that short span of time, I got two completely different kinds of American experiences,” Ho said. “I was one of two Asian American families in that small town. Then suddenly I was becoming friends with kids who were from a Korean American family, an Indian American family and lots of different backgrounds and immigration stories.”
After high school, she studied English at University of California, Berkeley. Ho said attending the university was “a fortuitous moment,” since it was one of the founding sites for ethnic studies in 1969 after a long, violent student strike and helped teach her the context of Asian American history, which informs her fiction.
At Berkeley, Ho joined an Asian American political newspaper, Hardboiled; interned at the public television station KQED; and worked for a Hollywood producer, thinking she might work as a journalist or screenwriter, but neither career path suited her. She went on to work as a grant writer for arts nonprofit organizations and tutor students after school.
A self-described “major book nerd,” Ho said she wrote in a journal on and off since she was a child, but she didn’t start writing fiction until she was in her late 20s. She took a fiction writing class for fun. Then, 10 years after graduating from college, she enrolled in the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Maser of Fine Arts program in creative writing, where she was the only Asian American student in her class.
She then moved on to the University of Southern California to pursue a doctorate in creative writing and literature as a Dornsife fellow. Her dissertation is on 19th century Los Angeles Chinatown, how it was destroyed and the era’s racialized violence.
While Ho’s longtime dream of writing a book has come true, its publication is happening in the midst of a global pandemic and high rates of anti-Asian racism and violence.
“There’s been a shift in my perspective, having lived through the pandemic and really to see what’s really important to me personally, politically and what I can do to help my community,” Ho said. “I used to beat myself up a lot for not being productive, but the pandemic really changed that. I realized that sometimes your brain needs to rest — that counts as writing, too.”